Environmental Ethics


Environmental Ethics

A conversation with Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich

PaulREhrlichPaul R. Ehrlich has a Ph.D., University of Kansas.

Co-founder with Peter H. Raven of the coevolution field, he has pursued long-term studies of structure, dynamics, and genetics of natural butterfly populations. He has also been a pioneer in alerting the public to the problems of overpopulation, and in raising issues of population, resources, and the environment as matters of public policy.

Paul’s research group covers several areas. It continues to study dynamics and genetics of natural populations of checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas).


This research has applications to such problems as the control of insect pests and optimum designs for nature reserves. A central focus of his group is investigating ways that human-disturbed landscapes can be made more hospitable to biodiversity.

This work in “countryside biogeography” is under the direction of Professor Gretchen Daily, founder of the field, and Director of the CCB.

The Ehrlich group’s policy research on the population-resource-environment crisis takes a broad overview of the world situation, but also works intensively in such areas of immediate legislative interests as endangered species and the preservation of genetic resources.

A special interest of Ehrlich’s is cultural evolution, especially with respect to environmental ethics, and he is deeply involved in the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB) which he co-founded with his wife Anne (policy coordinator of the CCB) and Donald Kennedy.

Professor Ehrlich is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Ehrlich has received several honorary degrees, the John Muir Award of the Sierra Club, the Gold Medal Award of the World Wildlife Fund International, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (given in lieu of a Nobel Prize in areas where the Nobel is not given), in 1993 the Volvo Environmental Prize, in 1994 the United Nations’ Sasakawa Environment Prize, in 1995 the Heinz Award for the Environment, in 1998 the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, in 1999 the Blue Planet Prize, in 2001 the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America and Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, in 2009 the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences.

Members of Professor Ehrlich’s research group have gone on to join faculties of Princeton, Brown, and the Universities of California.


Question from Karim

Paul, what are some of the cultural gaps and disconnects with environmental awareness you see in the world today?

How might those gaps be bridged ?

Response from Paul


Karim, H.G. Wells had it right when in his Outline of History (1921) he said:

“History is more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Humanity is clearly losing the race.

Humanity is clearly losing that race.  The need to speed our pace greatly and bridge the culture gap in environmental understanding is clear, and in the areas of energy and the drivers of climate disruption it has never been more obvious.

Yet, despite the increasing difficulty, huge cost, and risk of maintaining oil flows to the United States, it seems almost impossible politically to educate people about the nation’s fossil-fuel addiction, cure it, and reduce the chances of catastrophe. Similarly, the serious air pollution and resultant human health penalties that attend the extraction and burning of coal have done little to spur even increased efficiency, let alone a rapid conversion to substitutes.

Worse, coal’s role as one of the greatest contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has yet to lead to its rejection.


The siloing of information and expertise is the major feature of the culture gap and one prime cause for the public’s relative lack of concern over crucial environmental problems.

Consider some ominous trends that are largely unknown or unappreciated by most human beings, rarely dealt with in education systems (including, outside of specialized courses, at the university level), and poorly covered in the media.

Coal’s role as one of the greatest contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has yet to lead to its rejection.

The concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have continued to increase because of human activities, especially over the past half century; the feedbacks recently discovered in the climate system have mostly been positive; and ever more signs of climate disruption have appeared, from thinning polar ice to a rising incidence of unusual weather events.  Extinctions of populations and species, already occurring at a rate thousands or more times beyond baseline levels (rates during periods outside of the five “mass extinctions”), make it continually clearer that humanity is causing a sixth mass extinction episode.

Over a billion people have too little food, twice as many as when the Green Revolution technology was first deployed. That indicates that the number of immune-compromised individuals is also at record levels, furthering the decay of our epidemiological environment.

Along with the other epidemiological consequences of the population explosion, the emergence of deadly pandemics is becoming ever more likely.

Over a billion people have too little food, twice as many as when the Green Revolution technology was first deployed.

The Himalayan “water tower” [see image below], is melting at alarming rates.


The melting is part of a general loss of Earth’s ice cover on both land and sea, which among other things will affect patterns of climate disruption, sea-level rise, and seismic events in ways that are difficult to predict.

The loss of the “water tower” is likely to cause a complex pattern of flooding, then drying of some of the rivers that supply agricultural water to much of southern and eastern Asia.

That’s the home of 1.6-2.0 billion people, with more being added all the time.  Worse, rising temperatures further threaten the food supply of those nations, 3 of which are nuclear powers.

The Himalayan “water tower”

– ice and snow of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau – is melting.

nepal22A “small” nuclear exchange, say between India and Pakistan, could end civilization.

There are also frightening symptoms traceable to release of hormone-disrupting chemicals and other toxic substances, increasing reasons for concern as more is learned about the ways in which early exposure to bioactive chemicals can influence development and survival. Besides assaulting many species that make up our life-support systems, toxics could be shifting the human sex ratio, causing developmental problems in children, and possibly reducing sperm counts.

And finally, although many educated people know that racism and sexism are nonsensical, that they also are drags on reaching sustainability is rarely mentioned in the media or by politicians, and progress in eradicating them has been far too slow and uneven.